Culture > Books

Books: Traveling by the book

Books | Authors: annoying (and sometimes delightful) travel companions

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

Summer is the time for traveling. And if not for traveling, for reading about traveling. That's why each summer, travel books such as Bella Tuscany, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and Encore Provence travel their way up the New York Times bestseller list. Encore Provence is the seventh book in a series by British author Peter Mayle. He struck gold in 1988 with A Year in Provence, about his adventures fixing up a house in the Luberon region in southern France. Six sequels later, he is still fixing up the house, but doing a little more touring and philosophizing. "Returning to a place where you have been happy is generally regarded as a mistake," he writes. "Memory is a notoriously biased and sentimental editor, selecting what it wants to keep and invariably making a few cosmetic changes to past events." The same can be said of writing a sequel. There is the sense, in both this book and its Italian sister, Frances Mayes's Bella Tuscany, that the writers are pleased with their success and are beginning to think of themselves as experts, not reporters. That's a significant difference: A reporter will steep a travelogue with atmosphere; an expert, with opinion. What atmosphere there is can feel phoned-in. Here's an example: "The French are not famous for being jolly," Mr. Mayle writes, "rather the reverse. Many foreigners tend to judge the mood of the entire nation on the basis of their first humiliating exposure to the Parisian waiter, not knowing that he is as morose and distant toward his countrymen-and probably toward his wife and cat as well-as he is to the tourist. But go south and the difference is striking." He describes his quest for an elusive, elaborate corkscrew. He and a friend journey to a corkscrew museum in Laguiole, a town in the Aveyron region (southern France). And here he dedicates half a dozen pages to a single meal, its flavors, and its servers-and this is the essence of travel writing. Bella Tuscany, by San Francisco State University writing professor Frances Mayes, has similar high points of haute cuisine (she even includes recipes), but also a similar unmindful didacticism. She writes of Italy, "The food, everywhere we've eaten, is great, the best. The coffee exists in a league by itself. Those who love seafood will never get over Sicilian food." Those thoughts would embarrass any self-respecting newspaper food critic. It's travel writing through adjectives, not atmosphere. Still, there are brighter moments. "Wine is light, held together by water," Mrs. Mayes writes. "I wish I'd said that, but it was Galileo." The most engaging character in Bella Tuscany is Bramasole, the house Mrs. Mayes bought with her husband, Ed. Bramasole (the translation is "a yearning for light") is, as readers learned in last year's Under the Tuscan Sun (still on the paperback bestseller list), a gorgeous but horrifically expensive country cottage. Bramasole becomes the stage on which rural Italy interacts with Mrs. Mayes. Workers and craftsmen, there to fix her wall, the two wells, the roof, etc., are the best things the book has to offer. But other passages-the majority, in fact-are little more than Mrs. Mayes's opinions, personal history, and private problems. It feels a little like having a talkative seatmate on an airplane, who tells you much more than you want to know. In other words, it's depressingly like real travel. Readers will learn about her divorce, her daughter's wedding (where she'll see that ex-husband for the first time in years), and in a repeated theme, that her life in California is simply too busy. Even more distasteful is her take on religious subjects. She's in Italy for Easter, but she successfully keeps out all pious thoughts. She settles for a quick conclusion, "Maybe we were smart enough to make the gods," she writes. "What better moment to explain the darkest moment of the year and how it swings toward light, except by a metaphor for birth. How to face this incredible rejuvenescence of spring except in a story of a miraculous rising." Unfortunately, her understanding of travel writing is similarly vague and unsatisfying. Not so with Bill Bryson, whose recent A Walk in the Woods (World, July 18, 1998) was a delightful mix of hiking journal and observational comedy. His new book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, is his episodic account of returning to America after having lived in Britain for 20 years. ("I read somewhere that nearly three million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens," he writes. "It was clear my people needed me.") The absurdities of American life are Mr. Bryson's favorite targets-including the 800 number he finds on a carton of dental floss ("As a rule of thumb, I would submit that if you need to call your floss provider, for any reason, you are probably not ready for this level of oral hygiene"). He writes about trips to the beach, camping, consumerism, and the "Customer Appreciation Day" at his local post office. "I would hate for you to think that my loyalties with respect to postal delivery systems can be bought with a chocolate-filled donut and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, but in fact it can," he admits. "Much as I admire Britain's Royal Mail, it has never once offered me a morning snack." As in A Walk in the Woods, Mr. Bryson's liberal tendencies emerge occasionally, but not so often as to spoil the book-as a travel companion he is less opinionated and annoying than, say, your average brother-in-law. Better companions still are to be found in George and Karen Grant's Just Visiting. The book is a wonderful collection of quotes and essays on travel from George Grant's usual suspects: Teddy Roosevelt, G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, Alexis de Tocqueville. Thoughts on travel in general are followed by a focus on specific cities. Lord Byron on Edinburgh, Dickens on Paris, Twain on Venice. "New York is a catastrophe," wrote Le Corbusier, "but a magnificent catastrophe." The Grants even include tantalizing recipes, from a true London caper sauce to a florentine asparagus torte. Eating emerges as another way of vicarious traveling. Mr. Bryson and the Grants remind us, in their own ways, that "the world is a book," as Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago. "Those who do not travel read only a page".

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